With a little jab at the current ambassador, who is coming home to launch a potential campaign to oust him from the White House, President Obama on Wednesday named Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as his new ambassador to China.
If confirmed by the Senate, Locke would replace Jon Huntsman, the Republican whom Obama persuaded to leave the governorship of Utah to go to China two years ago. Huntsman was not present for the White House announcement, but the president made sure that any Republican primary voters paying attention would link him with the Obama administration.
Huntsman “has decided to step down from his current job,” the president said without noting a reason for the move. He praised the ambassador as “an outstanding advocate for this administration and for this country.” Obama added that he is “very grateful” for Huntsman’s service.
Locke’s shift into the diplomatic role marks the first change in the Obama Cabinet. He also is the first ambassador of Chinese descent to go to Beijing since diplomatic relations were fully restored in 1979.
Both the president and Locke cited his family ties to China.
“It was a little over a century ago that my grandfather first came to America to work as a houseboy for a family in the state of Washington in exchange for English lessons,” said Locke. “He went back to China and had a family. So my father was also born in China and came over as teenager a few years later.”
Recalling his father’s service in the U.S. Army fighting on the beaches of Normandy, Locke lamented his death less than a year ago.
The president cited his grandfather’s journey in a steamboat, marveling that “a century later, his grandson will return to China as America’s top diplomat.” He added, “I can think of nobody who is more qualified than Gary Locke.”
Obama praised Locke’s handling of the census and his work to expand American exports and said he expects him to continue that work as ambassador. He added that U.S. companies “can count on him to represent their interests” in Beijing.
Locke, a former two-term governor of Washington state, also promised to work to open up markets, stating, “I am going back to the birthplace of grandfather, my father and my mom, and her side of the family. And I’ll be doing so as a devoted and passionate advocate for America, the country where I was born and raised.”
No timetable has been set on nominating a replacement for Locke as commerce secretary.